In 2015, research by New York Times revealed that there were more CEOs running top companies called John than women. Eight years later that has finally changed and, according to government figures, more women than ever are taking on senior roles in the FTSE 350 in the UK today.
Such progress can be realised and celebrated, but there is still more to do. In many cases, core working practices are not far from those that were designed at a time where women were not equally represented or prioritised as employees, or indeed were not present at all. Work tends to still operate under a nine-to-five, five-days-a-week model, a framework that may have served the needs of workers in decades gone by, but may be less appropriate in the modern era.
In particular, with more women taking their rightful share of the professional space for longer and more fruitful careers, the question is arising of how best to support those experiencing menopause at work. How can employers prevent this being part of a potential “Second Glass Ceiling” that could see people leave the workforce at this stage.
It’s important to note that everyone experiences menopause differently, and for some there is no impact on work and daily life. But BSI’s research suggests that 29% of UK women expect to leave work before retirement with a fifth specifically citing menopause, symptoms of which can range from hot flushes to dizziness, insomnia, and muscle and joint stiffness, and this number goes up to 25% for those with more severe symptoms.
Of course, not everybody experiencing difficult symptoms will leave the workforce, but in the UK, the number of 50- to 64-year-olds who are economically inactive – neither working nor job-hunting – rose by 375,000 after the pandemic. And despite the progress that has been made around gender balance at work, women are leaving the workplace faster than men. This needs to be addressed if organisations hope to mitigate significant productivity losses, prevent the attrition of talented people, and avoid the loss of mentors who can draw on their experience to support newer members of staff.
Understanding of menstruation, menstrual health and peri/menopause in Western society, including the UK, is complex and influenced by many factors. There is no simple fix to make all workplaces menopause-friendly. But small changes, such as those set out in BSI’s recent landmark guidance on menstruation, menstrual health and menopause in the workplace can make significant differences. The guidance was developed with input from large businesses including Wm Morrison and BT, as well as representatives from UNISON, Federation of Small Businesses, LGBT Foundation, Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, Daisy Network, Endometriosis UK, and included a public consultation period. It is designed to help organisations identify misconceptions around menstruation and peri/menopause and the impact a taboo surrounding them can have on workplace support.
The document sets out that turning ambition into action could be as simple as providing quiet spaces for short-term recuperation, rest, and management of symptoms. Other steps can include taking the time to consider the workplace culture to determine whether employees are given opportunities for open conversations, or to request support, or looking at whether there is enough flexibility for an individual approach to addressing needs, such as work hours, shift patterns, and even uniform, for example. Actions such as these can help people feel more confident that they can continue with their normal working life while experiencing the menopause, where they might otherwise opt to avoid the workplace.
Challenges and responsibilities
The potential benefits of these changes could be significant, not only for individuals, but for organisations and society as well, given that diverse workforces and long-term staff retention can be key factors in organisational success.
Menopause can often coincide with significant mid-life challenges and responsibilities. Research has shown that stress and symptoms of peri/menopause are inextricably linked. When there is knowledge within the organisation of how to support employees through these moments, this can help to prevent issues such as presenteeism, absenteeism, disengagement, or increased staff turnover.
This is not only an issue for those who are going through menopause themselves, but for organisations and society at large. Global menopause productivity losses are estimated by Bain & Company to already top $150 billion a year – and this situation is set only to grow as greater numbers of women stay in the workforce for longer. As women continue to shape the professional landscape of the future, evolving workplace cultures for the modern workforce and lifting what we are describing as the Second Glass Ceiling must be considered a vital opportunity, and one way to do this is by prioritising those experiencing the menopause so they can continue to contribute to thriving workplaces in the future.